Does Britain really need a ministry of culture?

Published by The Guardian (11th April, 2014)

So farewell then, Maria Miller, the minister who made more of a splash with her drawn-out departure than she managed to achieve during four years in government office. She spent 18 months in the cabinet at the ministry of culture, overseeing a hotchpotch of responsibilities from ballet and broadband to table tennis and tourism. Yet the best defence that could be made of her work was that she steered through gay marriage so successfully.

This was a noble achievement, especially in the face of fire from the misanthropic right. But pause for a second: why did this important social reform came under the wing of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport? Traditionally, such issues have been handled by the Home Office, as a new biography of Roy Jenkins reminds us, but the cautious Theresa May was reportedly reluctant to handle such an explosive issue.

Miller’s replacement is an impressive character, the son of an immigrant bus driver who has become the first elected politician of Asian descent to reach the cabinet. But apart from an enthusiasm for Star Trek, Sajid Javid is better known for his business brain than any love of arts or sport. So given the reluctance to hand the job to a genuine champion of culture, would it not make more sense to simply abolish the entire department?

This is not to reheat tired arguments over the need for state subsidies of arts – although it is worth noting in passing that some of the most innovative creative industries in this country are those which receive less support such as design, fashion, pop music and video games. Equally, while right to highlight the astonishing success of this incredibly vibrant sector, it is depressing when so many politicians seek to reduce art to its economic value.

There needs to be a minister accountable for the significant sums spent. But this person should be an advocate of the arts willing to stir debate on something so central to life and national wellbeing. Perhaps this is a pipedream in our anti-politics age – but it would be good to hear a senior figure stoking discussion about design of tower blocks or the latest show at Tate Modern. Instead, this important job gets handed to ambitious party hacks on the rise who alight on something safe such as the pointless import of US-style local television to aid their careers.

Sure, they get a seat at the cabinet table – yet the ministry itself has almost ceased to exist. After slashing staff budgets, the department was shunted last year from its own office into the Treasury, where it sits squashed on to one floor beside the nation’s tax collectors. “It’s been axed to the bone,” said one political insider. This seems symbolic, reflecting the importance given to a department that has been something of a misfit since its birth two decades ago.

It was created as the Department of National Heritage by John Major, days after he won the 1992 general election so unexpectedly. This was widely assumed to have been a gift for his friend and fellow Chelsea fan, David Mellor, partly as reward for steering the sale of ITV franchises as a junior home office minister. But he survived just five months before being forced out by his own handling of unfortunate press revelations.

For all his faults, Mellor had passion about and profound knowledge of the subjects in his red boxes, unlike his three Tory successors who filled his post over the following five years. New Labour typically rebranded the department and gave the job to another arts lover, Chris Smith – but then under Gordon Brown’s premiership it became a political football again, and was handed to three rising Westminster stars in three years. Now we are on our third minister of fun under the coalition.

The legacy of these machinations is a ministry that has the smallest budget of any spending department, is shunned by the best civil servants and lacks sense, shape or purpose. Much of the key work on regulation and distribution of funding is carried out by quangos. Meanwhile tourism and media would be more logically placed under the business brief, equalities is a fudged mess, and many in heritage would prefer to sit alongside planning at Communities and Local Government.

The DCMS bungled the rollout of superfast broadband, which was found to be running some £200m over budget and two years late. This would be better bundled alongside digital inclusion and cyber-security at the Cabinet Office in a beefed-up digital department, given the crucial importance of this sector to Britain’s future. It was noticeable, incidentally, the prime minister himself rather than Miller took the lead on the issue of access to online pornography – while the handling of press regulation has been botched from start to finish.

There are too many government departments – their existence, titles and responsibilities often the result of political horse-trading rather than the needs of the nation. Few ministries demonstrate this better than the shrivelled, muddled and sometimes-misfiring department of culture, media, sport and many other things from gambling to wartime commemorations.

Yet there is no chance of either main party delivering the coup de grace, given the furious outcry and accusations of philistinism that would ensue. So instead we limp on with the current compromise, another messy cosmetic solution to the real needs of the nation.

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